UNITED, AUGUST 2000
Here comes David Beckham. One half of ‘Britain’s most stylish couple,’ according to OK! magazine.
A founding member of ‘Posh and Becks Inc. – the country’s biggest small company,’ say Heat.
A ‘celebrity doll twisted and pulled out of all recognition’ reckon Esquire.
Well. They never said all that stuff about Karel Poborsky (and he really did have doll’s hair...).
Here comes David Beckham, squinting in the early morning sun, just about to start training. Not looking particularly stylish if truth be told, in a green sweatshirt and grey shorts. Nor bearing much resemblance to a small corporation. And as for a celebrity doll... well, maybe Action Man when he boasted ‘real hair’.
The truth is, David Beckham (especially since he shaved his hair off) just looks like a typical footballer, albeit a more photogenic one than, say... Gary Neville. But it’s a sign of the tabloid times that talking to him at training still feels like something of a coup.
“Only his fifth magazine interview since France 98!” bragged one title recently after jumping through the hoops required to secure some time with the midfielder. Fortunately, it hasn’t yet got to that stage here. A simple request for a pre-season catch up is met with a grin and a nod. No agents, no PRs, no hoops.
Last season was arguably Beckham’s most consistent yet in a United shirt and, whatever triumphs and disappointments international football will continue to offer, he always has the safe haven of Old Trafford and a new campaign to look forward to.
Particularly after ending the last one in such upbeat manner – and with a flurry of goals.
“Yeah, it just came all of a sudden,” he enthuses, with the smile of the in-form. “One minute I’ve only got two or three goals to my name, the next minute I’m on nine. I don’t know what happened. Some said it was the haircut, or my new boots. Maybe I just got into different positions and shot with a little more confidence. All I know is that we won the league and I’m enjoying my football.”
It probably wasn’t the haircut. Though it must feel strange, to see yourself on the front page of the newspapers for making a trip to the barbers.
“Yeah, it was a bit,” says Beckham amicably, apparently unperturbed. “But the ‘skinhead, skinhead’ chants I started getting from around the ground on matchday are the closest I’ve had to a regular song at Old Trafford, so that was nice!”
‘Nice’ would be a fair summation of last season. Winning the League was, well, you know, great and all but – after the previous campaign’s treble – maybe a little anti-climactic. Perhaps we’ve been spoilt by success.
“The fans only have the same expectations as the players,” offers Beckham. “We set high standards so of course we’re disappointed if we don’t keep them. Personally, going out of the Champions League was the lowest point of last season for me. I’ve never been a good loser. I hate it.”
Fortunately there was still another League title. Although, at the risk of sounding really churlish, even there, the fact that United won it at a canter took both the tension and excitement out of the season’s end.
Here, Beckham does disagree. “You can never take the title for granted. We’ve made it hard for ourselves in the past so it was nice to finish with a few games to go. There’s still a buzz about winning it. Absolutely.”
The other buzz (apart from the cut) was the night of Sir Alex Ferguson’s testimonial match, where Beckham got to wear the number seven shirt alongside two of his heroes. His face genuinely lights up like a Christmas tree when he recalls the night.
“The moment I first saw Bryan Robson wearing the number seven,” he glows. “I wanted to be like him, to wear the same shirt. And then later, Eric Cantona. You cannot believe how proud it makes me to be United’s number seven, following in those footsteps. So to come on to the pitch with both of them that night is something I will always remember.”
There were other memorable moments – the supposed row with Ferguson for missing training when his son Brooklyn was sick (“That was blown out of all proportion,”); the latest tattoo (“It’s not a crucified figure, it’s a guardian angel”) and of course, most importantly, the thong debate – does he really wear his wife’s underwear?
A rueful shake of the head and a minor attempt at an imposing stare suggest this may have cropped up in dressing room banter more than once.
It’s all part and parcel of being a tabloid figure. “It’s up to David how much he appears in the papers,” sniffed Sir Alex when we interviewed him last month though the truth is probably a little more complicated.
“I wouldn’t change my life,” insists Beckham. “I mean, a little more privacy would be nice, but I don’t think that’s likely to happen. Victoria gets more annoyed than I do with what people say about me. I just get on with it.”
Ask him what he’d do if he could be anonymous for the day and he replies without pause: “Take my son out. Something like the trip we planned to Chester Zoo, which was supposed to be private but ended up all over the papers. I’d like to be left alone doing things like that.”
The number of countries where Beckham is left alone shrinks daily. At Madrid Airport last season, autograph hunters were queuing up before the United team’s plane touched down. In Rio too, everyone knew of David Beckham. Even on a secret second honeymoon in Florence this summer, a trip to the shops became another field day for the paparazzi. As did a holiday in the United States.
“A few years ago, I could walk around central London without any aggro,” says Beckham. “But it’s changed. I can put on a baseball cap and sunglasses but still get recognised. I’m not complaining though. There are nice things about it too.”
The spotlight won’t drift very far if he scores more goals for United like the one against Madrid last season. In the wake of defeat, no-one made much of it but Beckham’s weaving run past three defenders before slamming a right-foot shot into the back of the net should have laid to rest rumours he can’t dribble.
“I can’t do what Ryan Giggs can do,” blushes Beckham (not unhappy to be reminded of the goal...). I just aim to whip it in the box.”
His crossing not in doubt, the one regular criticism of Beckham comes with his goals, or rather lack of them. Although, as TV pundit Mark Lawrenson pointed out: “You can’t expect him to put in the perfect cross and then get on the end of it too.”
According to England manager Kevin Keegan, it’s a personality trait.
“David reminds me a bit of Peter Beardsley,” says Keegan. (Now, there’s a football man for you... who else would compare Beardsley – whom Newcastle fans affectionately nicknamed “Quasimodo” – and Beckham?).
“I had to really push Peter to try and score more,” explains Keegan. “But he always wanted to make goals for others. David’s the same. He derives as much pleasure from someone else scoring as he does from scoring himself. That’s because he doesn’t see himself as anything different to his team-mates.”
“I’ve never thought of myself as someone special,” agrees Beckham. “My family was an ordinary working-class family. I was an apprentice on £25 a week, living in digs. I’ve worked very hard to get into the first-team and I’ll carry on working hard. But...” he grins, “I like scoring goals too.”
He stands up. It’s time to get back to training. The boy once described in his local paper as ‘the Chingford football sensation’ is 25 now, with more than a dozen years of headlines behind him.
“I’ve come to terms with my life,” he reflects. “I’ve grown up, I’ve got married, I’ve got a little boy. On the field, I’ve grown up a lot too. I’m enjoying my football just as much, but I’ve got a bit more experience now.”
We shakes hands and he trots off. Headline writers get ready: A new season is about to begin.